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Iran: Elon Musk says almost 100 'active' Starlink devices operating in country

Billionaire had previously offered the satellite broadband service to help Iranian protesters get around internet shutdown
Starlink provides broadband internet access in 40 countries using thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth, rather than fibre-optic cables (Starlink)
Starlink provides broadband internet access in 40 countries using thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth, rather than fibre-optic cables (Starlink)

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said his company is now close to having 100 active Starlink devices in Iran offering the firm's satellite internet service.

Musk has previously claimed the satellite-based broadband service is being provided to help Iranians circumvent the government's restrictions on accessing parts of the internet, which have been restricted following protests in the country over the last three months. 

"Approaching 100 Starlinks active in Iran," Musk tweeted on Monday evening, under a video showing street life in Iran, where some women were seen without a hijab.

The women-led Iranian protest movement broke out in September after a young woman was arrested for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab inappropriately and died in custody.

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If Starlink has indeed been provided to Iranians, it marks the second major international event SpaceX has intervened in this year. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Starlink began being provided to Ukrainians as Russian forces began targeting their country's infrastructure.

However, at just 100, the number of Starlink devices in Iran pales in comparison to the number of active systems operational in Ukraine, which stands at over 23,000.

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Unlike in Ukraine, where Starlink is registered and now considered a licensed internet provider, in Iran the use of the service is not legal or sanctioned by the country's authorities, making it particularly dangerous for users of the system.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 200 Starlink devices have been smuggled into Iran by Iranian-American activists and tech entrepreneurs in California.

The devices are smuggled illegally through customs, often repackaged as everyday items, it reported.

Earlier this year, Iran's minister of communications and information technology played down Musk's proposals to ship Starlink devices to the country.

"Don't take it seriously," Issa Zarepour quoted as saying by local media. "They should obey the country's laws if they want to provide their service to Iran. However, it's doubtful that the Starlink satellite would be activated in Iran any time soon."

In September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the United States had issued a general licence "to advance internet freedom and the free flow of information" to Iranians.

Following Blinken's statement, Musk said: "Starlink is now activated in Iran. It requires the use of terminals in-country, which I suspect the [Iranian] government will not support, but if anyone can get terminals into Iran, they will work."

Not the only solution 

Simon Angus, director of Monash IP Observatory, which monitors the quality of the internet around the world, told Middle East Eye in September that "Starlink is never going to be the solution to an entire country's internet access problems. It just doesn't scale like that." 

"A single terminal is like a single router - you can hang maybe 10 or, at a stretch, 20 devices off a single connection. Ukraine benefited greatly from Starlink not because thousands of citizens got back online, but because Starlink could support strategic connectivity in the field," he said.

"I would suggest that for the moment, Musk is putting in place a system that may benefit a small number of users who manage to get a Starlink terminal," he added. 

Starlink provides broadband internet access in 40 countries using thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth rather than fibre-optic cables.

In 2020, research found that 43 million people were connected to broadband via satellite. While this number is expected to grow, it still only amounts to around one percent of the planet's connected population.

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